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Hero At Bridge ‘Really Didn’t Want To Jump’

December 21, 1988

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ William F. Kessler said he was worried about underwater stumps and the size of the foundering truck driver below him when he leaped 40 feet from a highway bridge into a Louisiana swamp to save the trucker.

Not until the incident was ending did Kessler learn the Atchafalaya Swamp was infested with alligators and poisonous water moccasins.

″I really didn’t want to jump,″ Kessler, of Houston, said after he and Fred James Lalumandier, 23, of Bryan, Texas, were honored Wednesday by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission of Pittsburgh for saving Robert H. Fordham, 40, of Columbia, S.C.

The men, strangers until leaving their vehicles and preparing to leap from Interstate 10 near Grosse Tete, La., on Aug. 11, were among 20 people from nine states and Ontario named Wednesday for heroism. Five people died in their efforts.

″There were a lot of stumps in there. We didn’t know how deep it was,″ Kessler said in a telephone interview. ″That was my main concern besides the size of Mr. Fordham. He’s a big old boy.″

Fordham, 274 pounds, could barely keep his face above water due to the back, hip and head injuries he suffered when his tractor-trailer jackknifed in a rain storm. He was catapulted through the windshield.

″He kind of flailed when I first reached him. I said ‘Relax, we’re here to help you,’ and he totally relaxed,″ Kessler said.

Kessler and Lalumandier towed Fordham about 40 feet to a steep bank, where they waited an hour with him until a man arrived in a small fishing boat.

″He says, ‘You boys are crazy for being in this water.’ He says, ’There’s alligators in here,‴ Kessler said.

The commission distributed $50,000 in awards to the 20 latest heroes or their survivors. They are among 7,294 people honored in the 84 years since the fund was established by industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The commission has distributed more than $17.6 million in one-time payments and pensions in recognition of acts of heroism.

The other acts honored were:

- Stephen Douglas Gragg, 8, and Chad Eugene Gragg, 12, of Buckner, Mo., fell through ice and drowned Feb. 4 along with their brother, Aaron, 11, who fell through ice on a small pond and called to them for help.

- Robert L. Merrifield, 22, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Miguel Rodriguez Jr., 38, of Bay City, Texas, entered a tank and like the co-worker they were trying to save were overcome and died. The accident occurred Aug. 26, 1987, on a drilling rig platform at Sabine Pass, Texas.

- Everett H. Williamson, 32, of Cleveland died in a house fire along with Jeremy Williamson, 9, his nephew, after rousing Jeremy, his two brothers and their father. The others escaped.

- Ranger Mark Padgett, 30, of Hartwell, Ga., dove into the Darien River near Darien, Ga., April 17, to help save Roy M. Smith, 37, from drowning.

- Four people: Lionel E. Hicks, 32, of Picton, Ontario; Lawrence A. White, 27, of Toronto; R. Paul Vidito, 31, of Picton; and Paul Nelson Bartlett, 28, of Consecon, Ontario, entered the basement of a building in Picton Jan. 11, 1986, to rescue patrons of a restaurant who were trapped by debris following a gas explosion. All survived.

- Craig Irwin Cronin, 38, of Hyattsville, Md., stepped between a co-worker at a College Park, Md., motel office and a man who splashed gasoline on both workers, setting them aflame on Sept. 29, 1987. Cronin extinguished the flames on Carla Scott. Both were hospitalized for serious burns.

- Thomas M. Millard, 35, of Lincoln, Neb., saved police officers David M. Beggs and Lee R. Volkner from possibly being shot by a suspect who drew Begg’s gun from its holster as the offers were arresting him. Millard joined the struggle and grabbed the suspect’s wrist.

- Joseph F. Clemente, 45, of McKeesport, Pa., and Edward Opatrny, 41, of Port Vue, Pa., freed Gregory D. Kuhns, 18, from his burning, overturned car after an accident July 8, in Harrison City, Pa.

- Merle Edward Watkins, 65, of Pittsburgh entered the burning home of a neighbor, Fred D. Wood, 80, pushed open a barricaded interior door and dragged Wood, who greatly outweighed him, to safety.

- John Phillip Goucher, 34, of Oakdale, Calif., and Ken L. Jenkins, 30, of La Habra, Calif., entered a burning automobile, freed Gary S. Franklin, 36, and pulled him out March 23, at Dublin, Calif.

- Roger Dale Jackson, 16, of Joanna, S.C., stopped his vehicle on a highway in Joanna Feb. 12 and freed Frank G. Trotter, 21, who was unconscious, from Trotter’s pickup truck after it crashed on a railroad track. A freight train smashed the pickup seconds after Jackson pulled Trotter free.

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